Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Zachor Morning 5783
After returning from the high school Yachad trip to Germany and Poland, Rabbi Timoner connects the figure of Amalek to Polish Holocaust erasure and recent Israeli pogroms in the West Bank.
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Ian and Rainen, thank you for your meaningful divrei Torah. I noticed that each of you were concerned with all of the rules and strictness of the parasha, but you also each focused on something pleasing or delightful to the senses: the sight of eternal light for the eyes and the smell of incense.
Rainen, you brought us the rabbinic teaching that the ner tamid, the eternal light is a metaphor for the Jewish people, and how the beating down of our people doesn’t prevent us from shining our light, and you went on talk about the Holocaust.
It just so happens that one week ago – last Friday – I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau with 14 teenagers. We’d been in Poland for almost a week and in Berlin before that. We’d walked the perimeter of the Warsaw Ghetto, learning of the uprising and the courageous people who lived there, descended into Berlin’s Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, stumbled over stolperstein (the little brass memorials inlaid in Germany’s sidewalks to inform about a Jewish family that used to live in that location but was deported and murdered). We’d visited Majdanek, the concentration and death camp right next to Lublin, preserved as it was at the time of liberation, so close to the city that apartment buildings look directly upon the smokestack of the crematorium, and we visited the Ringelblum Archives, which features the writings of the Oneg Shabbat collective, a group of Warsaw organizers who resisted by documenting what was happening in the ghetto and saving those documents in metal milk cans buried beneath the city. In Krakow, we learned about 1,000 years of robust Jewish history in Poland, seeing its evidence in synagogues, including the Rema synagogue, built by Moshe Isserles, the foremost Ashkenazi rabbinic authority in the 16th century, and the Temple Synagogue, a Moorish revival sanctuary with stained glass windows that reminded the kids of CBE. It was a booming center for progressive Jewish life in Krakow when it was built in 1862, the same year as the founding of our congregation.
In 1939 there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland, most of whom traced their ancestry back in that place for centuries. Now, in Krakow, there are officially 150 Jews, though the Krakow JCC, where we shared in a packed and joyous Shabbat dinner, has 850 members, which includes many people who are in the process of rediscovering and reclaiming their Jewish roots. Still, less than a few thousand Jews live in Poland now, out of three million three hundred thousand.
More than the bottomless evil of Auschwitz, more than the unimaginable scale of Birkenau’s abject cruelty, the horror that stayed with me most from this trip was the silence, the erasure. Outside of Warsaw and Krakow, there are no Jews. The countryside is dotted with hundreds of little towns, many of which used to be Jewish population centers. Some were 30% Jewish, some were 70% Jewish. Now all of them are zero percent Jewish. The people in them who are younger than 85 have never met a Jew. They live their lives having no idea that the house they live in used to be a Jewish home. That the corner market used to be the Jewish butcher. That the school two blocks over used to be the cheder. That the church down the street used to be a synagogue. Unlike in Germany, there are no plaques, there are no monuments. They are not taught about the Jewish history of their town in school. It is not spoken of. There is total erasure.
This reality is only exacerbated by the nationalist Law and Justice Party, which took power in 2015 and has steadily been sliding toward authoritarian rule, controlling the media, limiting civil liberties, and undermining judicial independence. Their 2018 law bans any speech that blames Poland or Poles for the crimes committed by the Third Reich, even as collaborators. Meaning, in Poland you are not allowed to implicate Poles in the harm done to Jews during World War II. Originally, violation of this law was punishable by up to three years in prison. After intervention by the US State Department, violators are now merely liable for civil penalties. Nonetheless, there is a chilling silence.
An organization called Forum for Dialogue, run by non-Jews, is a beacon of hope. They work in 50 towns that used to be majority Jewish, engaging a self-selected group of high school students in each town in a research project to discover the Jewish story of their town. The kids create a walking tour to point out where Jews lived and prayed and shopped and learned. And they say that this information seems to be totally new for everyone in the town, that no one knows this history. We visited one of these small towns and had an encounter with kids who’d done that work for the last two years. Our fourteen students were the very first Jews they had ever met.
Now Ian, you especially were concerned about all of the rules in Judaism, all of the strictness. And I think as Reform and progressive Jews, many of us can relate to your concern. One of theories about strictness in Judaism that has made the most sense to me has to do with trauma. The theory goes that strictness is a response to trauma, and in particular strictness is an attempt to keep the Jewish people from disappearing. For example, after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and most Jews were taken as slaves by the Roman Empire and scattered across the world, the remaining Rabbis created the Mishna, the first book of Jewish law. They were afraid that if we didn’t have a standard operating manual, Judaism in Morocco would look so different from Judaism in Babylonia (Iraq) that they would become different religions. So they made a code book that everyone could follow to stay united. The next time it happened was after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492 and that was the Shulchan Aruch, which is the guidebook most Orthodox Jewish law is based upon today, and the last time it happened was with the onset of modernity, which coincided with the Holocaust, and so today you have groups of Jews who are interpreting Judaism in the most strict and most reactionary way possible. And that leads us back to my story about being in Poland last week.
Because meanwhile, while we were experiencing the eerie silence of a Poland empty of Jews, while American Jews were bracing for a national Day of Hate calling for antisemitic graffiti and vandalism and possibly worse, Israeli Jews were filling the streets in the hundreds of thousands, in protest of the Israeli government’s slide toward authoritarianism. As they marched, they chanted “Yariv Levin, kan ze lo Polin” telling the so-called “Justice Minister” Yariv Levin “this is not Poland”. This, Israelis, were chanting, is not a society that will slide quietly into the darkness of authoritarian rule, that will allow its government to hobble the judiciary, to remove civil liberties, to silence public media and public voices.
But two days later, Israel sure looked like the Poland of old. After the abhorrent murder of two innocent Israeli brothers, Israeli settlers committed a pogrom like the kind that our people were subject to for those 1,000 years of Polish history. Four hundred supposedly religious Jews from the settlement of Har Bracha (which means mountain of blessing, ironically enough) and others, rampaged through the Palestinian town of Hawara, burning cars and homes, destroying property, beating anyone they could find, murdering one person and injuring 100 more, while the military largely stood by. Six settlers were arrested and immediately released.
The rampaging settlers are unlikely to be punished. The ruling coalition’s antidemocratic moves are designed for a moment just like this. By hobbling the power of the courts, they can act without judicial oversight in the West Bank. While the Israeli public is marching in the streets to defend the courts, Defense minister Yoav Gallant just signed an agreement giving governmental powers over the West Bank to none other than Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Finance Minister and a minister of Defense, who said in response to the pogrom that Hawara “needs to be wiped out” and who denied that Jewish terrorism exists. Smotrich now has full powers over nearly all aspects of life in the West Bank, including planning and building, i.e. the ability to expand settlement construction and stop all Palestinian development. The government also plans to set up a dual justice system by which the settlements exist under the full protection of Israeli law but Palestinians are given no civil rights. According to the lead Haaretz editorial of this week, the difference between military control of the West Bank and civil control of the West Bank is the difference between de facto and de jure annexation. Describing this as a “severe breach of international law,” Haaretz’s editorial board wrote: “In light of the fact that there is no intention of granting civil rights to the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, the result of the agreement is a formal, full-fledged apartheid regime.”
This is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, on which we read an additional section of Torah beyond the regular parasha. The three additional verses, from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, read: “ZACHOR, Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— (18) how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (19) Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Amalek was the exemplar of evil to our ancestors: attacking our ragtag group of former slaves from behind, ignoring military ethics, targeting the weak and vulnerable. Amalek the person and Amalek the nation became representative to the Jewish people of vicious, genocidal hate, hate that would stop at nothing to destroy Israel and annihilate the Jewish people. We read these verses on this Shabbat because on Purim we read the book of Esther, in which Haman is explicitly described as a descendant of Amalek, and his plans to murder all of the Jews in the Persian Empire reflect that lineage. The fanciful conclusion to the book delivers relief from his planned pogrom, and instead a reverse pogrom. Verse 9:1 says, “And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.” And in verse 5, “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.” Verse 16, “they disposed of their enemies, killing 75,000 of their foes.”
We are warned in the verses of Shabbat Zachor that Amalek will rise again. That we must not forget: Amalek is real. Hitler was Amalek. There are Amaleks getting louder and louder in our country. And there are Amaleks targeting the State of Israel and its inhabitants. Amalek laid waste to 3 million Polish Jews and 3 more million from the rest of Europe. We must not forget.
But the vengeance of this story and this holiday is also a favorite of the very worst elements of the Jewish people. It was on Purim in 1994 that Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 more when he opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, his fellow coalition member, are open admirers of Baruch Goldstein. This is who is in charge of the West Bank now, meaning that the next few days – Purim– will be extremely dangerous for the Palestinian people.
Blotting out the memory of Amalek from under heaven cannot mean becoming like Amalek. It cannot mean reversing the pogrom. It cannot mean indiscriminately burning and beating and destroying and murdering. It cannot mean establishing apartheid rule over a subjugated people. Surely, this is not what God wants of us.
In the words of Rabbi Art Green about the pogrom this week, “We Jews like to think of ourselves as people with long memories, stretching all the way back to Sinai, to the patriarchs, and all the rest. But we also need to admit how ridiculously short our Jewish memories can be. I wonder how many of those four hundred [pogromchiks] are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Are they not ashamed, looking at themselves in the mirror? Or has that memory disappeared already? Jews have such a long history of understanding what it means to belong to a defenseless minority. Indeed, Israel was created precisely because of that, as a nation state that would give us a way to emerge from constant victimhood.”
I was on a zoom this week with two leaders of the mass protests that are taking place almost daily now on the streets of Israel. They said a few things that I want to share with you. First, they said that the right wing coalition government is helping to unite the resistance. For the first time, the LGBT community, women, those seeking equality for Israeli Arabs, those standing for refugees, and those standing up against the occupation all have the same enemy. They are seeing the connections. They are seeing that it’s the same struggle. They’re seeing that democracy depends upon ending the occupation.
And they said that secular protesters are seeing that they need a new Judaism. That Judaism itself has been their enemy because the face of Judaism is these right wing hate-filled fanatics, but they do not want their entire tradition to be defined by hate, and so they are finally recognizing the need for progressive Judaism. They believe that the country is waking up now to all of these connections, and that they are in a war for the future not only of Israel but of Judaism itself.
The settlers who destroyed Hawara this week stopped in the middle of their rampage to daven ma’ariv, to pray the very prayers we prayed last night, some of the same prayers we prayed this morning, and then went back to burning down the town. If the words of our prayers do not stop us from becoming like Amalek, what is their purpose?
This Shabbat Zachor, the chant of the Israeli street is ringing in our ears. “Yariv Levin, kan ze lo Polin. Yariv Levin, supposed Minister of Justice, this is not Poland.” On this Shabbat Zachor, we side with the Israeli street who defiantly assert that they will not be silent, they will not be erased, they will not slide into the dark night of authoritarian rule. On this Shabbat Zachor, we side with the Israeli street who declare that the Jewish people will be neither victims nor victimizers. We side with the Israeli street who declare that blotting out Amalek must never mean becoming like Amalek. Instead it must mean: to protect against the Amalek outside of us AND to reject the Amalek within us. No matter how much we’ve been crushed, we focus on the light and on the incense, on the God that loves beauty and delight, on the God that loves tenderness and closeness, on the God that loves freedom and the God that loves all life. This is what it is to learn from the Holocaust. This is what it is to celebrate Purim. This is what it is to pray. This is what it is to be a Jew.